If LeeAnn works at the Dollar General for much longer, she thinks she will become a shrivelled prune on the shelf, identical to the one sitting front and center between the coffee mugs and plastic bowls. Her body will become a dried out piece of fruit and will stench up the whole place just out of spite. Her hands are cracked. They look like they belong to someone who has spent the past three years underwater. Her nails are cracked and the nail polish she put on two days ago has mostly scratched off. Tonight she will put more on, she is not a prune yet, she will still have beautiful hands, but god, she is so tired of putting nail polish over layers of wiry nails every two days. She thinks that tonight she’ll choose the maroon polish and she’ll add sparkles over the top. The light blue sparkles that make everything look a little more like a disco ball. If anyone tells her to take it off, she’ll leave the middle finger alone and tell them where to stick it.
She bends over at the cash register, shirt halfway tucked in, and decides that the amount of cash is correct without actually counting it. Her head thumps on from the migraine threatening to return. She remembers the night before, the swirling of two dirty margs in a Red Bull can that had been cut in half. The smell of it gave her reflux before the swallowing did. She remembers the smell of tequila being poured into dixie cups turned shot glasses and how after five minutes the paper melted. She remembers being alive for the four hours she was drunk and wishing she felt less alive five hours later when she woke up. She grabs the water bottle under the desk and throws back the golden liquid while she swallows her ibuprofen. One of them will help, probably. She wishes they would catch her. She thinks about leaving. She grabs the cash again and shuffles through it mindlessly, before the knocking starts.
She quits fumbling through sweaty bills to unlock the doors and let Cal in, who storms past her and immediately begins taking inventory in the back. He wears burgundy Nike’s to work everyday, tells the manager to take it up with his wife when they tell him it’s not up to dress code because what are they even going to do, its a fucking Dollar General. He walks around the storage room in the back for a full ten minutes just running through his laundry list of tasks for the day before finally settling in on one, deciding that there is nothing as important in that moment than focusing on what he’ll get from Dina’s next door for lunch.
LeeAnn walks in to find him sitting criss crossed on the ground, fumbling through an unlabelled cardboard box. She learned months ago that Cal would rather take twice as long to do one simple thing than rush through a shift and that includes rummaging through a molded and soaking wet box that had been left in the corner of a stock room for weeks on end. She thinks about that dried out piece of fruit again and wonders if he’s a prune too. But he’s not even a fruit. He’s just hollow. LeeAnn wants to know what his life looks like. She wants to know someone else is hollow.
Cal works with his hands everyday and he loses his wedding ring every two weeks. Maybe it’s unintentional. LeeAnn thinks so. She pretends that his hands get too sweaty and greasy from what he does in a day, that his fingers are becoming wrinkled like the prune too, and the ring just slips right off. Some days, she catches him studying his ring, like it’s become a weight that makes slicing through the packaging tape impossible. Some days she sits in the parking lot, right before he pulls in, shifting gears in a thirty year old toyota, and she sees him wipe sweat off of his cheeks; it’s probably sweat. It’s probably just sweat.
Last night, LeeAnn sat on a velvet couch covered in piss stains and faded paint stripes, waiting for her mother to set down her keys and grab the Coors Light on the counter. Monica left it there overnight, so the minute she walks over to take a gulp, she flinches and pours it down the drain. She works at the diner on Main Street, pulls 24 hour shifts. LeeAnn was sure it’s illegal.
Her mother’s boyfriend, Joe, sits down beside her and asks if she wants a drink. She usually doesn’t, but Joe is already handing her half of a jagged Red Bull can. She takes it gladly and sips on the yellowish liquid for the next hour. She thinks about how Joe probably made this for himself, but Monica gave him a glance across the kitchen and he knew that she wanted the two of them to talk about something, even if it was about tequila in a metal can.
“Take the rent to Bobby before you go to work tomorrow.” Monica is rummaging through her purse to try and find the crumbled envelope with cash stuffed inside. LeeAnne looks at her through the entryway and grimaces.
“Rent was due two weeks ago, mom.” Monica doesn’t even look up.
“He gets it when he gets it. He owes me.”
LeeAnn knows that. She remembers a year ago when her mom ran into Bobby’s house to write him a check, only to find him tangled in the sheets with the gas station clerk. When Bobby’s wife came by the house later asking if she knew anything, Monica said Bobby wasn’t home and she left the check on the front porch by the ferns.
“It’s been awhile, mom,” LeeAnn tells her. “Eventually, that excuse is going to run out.” By the time she’s finished her sentence, the envelope is sitting on the table by the door and Monica has dragged Joe into the back room for a smoke.
Once she finishes her first drink, she makes two more and soon she’s alone in her own home, watching I Dream of Jeannie and festering over her next day off work. She thinks she’ll call out sick tomorrow, maybe grab Taco Bell before looking at job ads. She’s not sure how much notice she’ll give Cal before she quits. She knows that she cannot dumpster dive through any more cardboard boxes or fling back layers of plastic looking for treasure in disposable bins.
She’s in her car now, in the parking lot of a Trader Joe’s, three parking spaces from the end, dreaming about the cheesy gordita crunch that she could have had if only they had kept the lettuce off or if she had the gall to take it back to the front. She shifts in her seat, focused on a video of a mother’s testimonial about her child swallowing Drano. She thinks maybe he thought it was liquid licorice, or maybe he just wanted to see what it would do, or maybe there was no other way around it and he needed to know something that no one else knew. But then his mother smelled him burning, literally burning, and she thinks that somehow she is also a Drano swallower. She can’t take the floppy cheesy taco back into the restaurant but she could swallow a gallon of Drano in one quick chug.
She wonders if Cal would do the same thing. She wonders if his throat tastes like ash like hers does. His hands are stained with oil and grime, though she watches him wash them three times a day. His finger is never stained where the ring sits. Her hands are stained with paper cuts and calluses and blisters that pop over and over until they begin to bleed. Maybe she’s projecting, but she thinks that his throat feels coated in plaster, that he never talks to her because he can’t, because someone threw an entire Ace Hardware’s worth of putty into his mouth and forced him to swallow it. She wonders if it was his wife, if that’s why he feels suffocated at work with the ring on, if it squeezes his hand throughout the day, if he leaves it in his car for the twelve hour shift, searching for a moment of peace. She wonders if there is something worse than being shriveled, if there is something worse than being alone.
There is a seven year old boy sorting through the candy at the register while his mom plans out their next meal. She picks out minute rice and a can of beans and looks around the freezer section for a bag of cheese that’s maybe less than three dollars, and when she finds none, she walks back to the beans and decides what else she can grab in a hurry. The kid is wide eyed at the chocolate bars and rainbows in front of him, and his mother is putting back the can of beans for a smaller one.
LeeAnn cannot help herself, so she runs to the back before going to the register to check out the woman and asks Cal, “Why do you take the wedding ring off at Dollar General but leave it on while you’re layering yourself in grease like a beefy five layer burrito?”He throws the box cutter on the floor and walks away, but turns once to tell her she needs to mind her business. She thinks about his hands again, like the world revolves around the oil that has stained its way into the deepest grooves of each finger. She thinks he has to love his wife. She wonders if his wife has found her way into those same grooves. She thinks that maybe he only has enough room for one thing to know him well, she thinks maybe his wife didn’t make the cut.
The next day, he tells her, “I bought the ring too small after I lost my first one at the beach. I can’t cut the boxes with the ring on or it feels like my finger’s gonna fall off.”They both chuckle and walk in the opposite direction of one another. They both know they’re lying. She doesn’t ask any more questions, though. She stares at the wedding ring, now shining on his hand where the stains used to linger. He cuts open the next box and dives into work and LeeAnn walks back to the front, out the door, takes a five minute break to chug something she had leftover in her car, and comes back in to find the boy has thrown skittles all across the floor.
The next day Cal quits, and LeeAnn puts in her two week notice. She can feel herself begin to shrivel and she commits to a job at the thrift store a few blocks away, deciding that sorting through sweaty underwear and used shoes is better than living on the shelf, unused. She wants to remember what it is like to have your breath catch in your throat. The thrift store is not that, but it maybe can be closer than where she is right now.
The first day she walks through the doors, a news story plays over the retro television sitting on the counter about a meth lab exploding, somewhere local. They make it seem like it’s a huge thing, like it was a statewide procedure. It was a small town – her mom would call it backroad bullcrap. It wasn’t high quality meth. But there was a fourteen year old boy there. He walked to his friend’s place. The parents were cooking meth in the back room, poorly, and someone lit the house up, burned the trailer to the ground; no one made it out. The trailer park shook. The trees started to burn. Both of the neighboring trailers started to burn too, the rubber roofs melted into the ground. But the 14-year-old boy was the only person LeeAnn could pay attention to. They didn’t even show his picture on the television, just said something about him being there in the first place.
She imagines what he looks like. He’s such a small boy. He’s probably 5’2” and didn’t get a haircut when he was supposed to. LeeAnn thinks that if he would have known how to drive and how to shift the gears he would have left in time. She doesn’t know the kid’s name and so she pretends it’s Tommy. She thinks if there is a peace in the universe it is burnt orange and smells like marshmallows when you first open the thin bag. She hopes that Tommy smells like marshmallows now. She thinks his hands would have been shaking and he would have fumbled the keys. She thinks his breath would have smelled like menthol, but not like tequila. She doesn’t know if he even smoked, but he was at a meth lab in a trailer park, so he probably did. She thinks his last cigarette would have been dangling from his lips when he jumped the car off by the side of the road.
She thinks he would have driven himself to Trader Joe’s. He would have ran inside and asked the cashier for her number. She thinks she would have laughed and told him no, but secretly wrote it down on a receipt. And maybe Tommy would have thrown the receipt away on accident. She knows that when you are fourteen you have nothing much to live for. That when you are fourteen, living is the worst part. And so she thinks that one year is enough to make a difference and she pretends that Tommy is alive right now and that he is out on a date with the beautiful cashier with the red cheeks and colorful hair clips and that he will go on more dates and become a tall young man and his legs will outgro the rest of him first and maybe that was the only thing he needed. Just one more year.
She throws everything she needs into a locker in the back of the store. They tell her to sort through blankets and clothing for holes and if the holes are small enough to put them on the floor anyways. She does, and she thinks back to the boy again. She wonders if his shoes had holes in them. If he shopped here. If his hands ever held the same door handle hers are holding now. If he ever ran out of the store like she’s doing now. If the cigarettes he probably smoked were Camels or Marlboro or if he tried to roll them himself. So she smokes. She smokes and she thinks of him and she stuffs the rest of her pack into the cement block sitting by the glass doors, and she doesn’t think she’ll touch them again.
LeeAnn wonders if being a prune is the worst thing that can happen to someone, after all. Her hands have quickly softened from folding laundry and hanging artwork in the corners of each section of the store. She doesn’t miss the metal shards from broken cans or the splinters she would get from cleaning the loading dock. The nail beds of her thumbs no longer crack and bleed with each flip of a twenty dollar bill. She handles so little money, but her hands are whole again. She remembers the last time she felt warm, the last time her hands didn’t scare her when they brushed against her own skin. She thinks that being warm is more than most people feel and so she decides to no longer shrivel.
While she’s stocking the last shelf of folded towels and fitted sheets, she watches an older woman fumble through the door, her walker hitting the glass door no matter how hard she shoves. She’s trying to carry a box of Old Navy flip flops on top of the walker, so LeeAnn rushes over to hold the door open. The woman’s name is Cheryl. She comes in every weekend with another box. Small things like shoes and clothes, once a lamp, once an old John Deere collectible helicopter, once an old pair of wooden clogs that are still sitting on the floor of the showroom beside the old coat hangers. Her husband died three months ago, and she doesn’t like his stuff to stay in her house. She says it’s all haunted anyways, and James would have wanted it gone. She leaves a box on the front desk every weekend and walks out, without saying a word to anyone. She goes through his belongings one box at a time and brings it all in when she can handle it. It’s been three months. LeeAnn couldn’t expect more from someone after only three months.
Today, she comes in and walks straight toward the section of mismatched cups and bowls. Her eyes are tinted yellow and she is so small, smaller than she was last weekend, already the stature of a gargoyle. She tells LeeAnn that while she was sorting through the cabinets she dropped an old cup. She’d had it since her honeymoon kind of old. She wants to find something else that’s old to replace it. LeeAnn thinks that the old woman is insane, she could drive 30 minutes to get to a Target and buy three cups for half a dollar. But Cheryl sifts through the junk for a few minutes, finds something small and blue that she likes, and pays the dollar for it. She smiles at LeeAnn when she leaves, and LeeAnn wonders if she’ll ever see her again. If there will be any more weekends. If maybe she is going to be the next 14 year old boy on the news, if something unfortunate will happen again. She will make up scenarios for this old woman in a few days and pretend that she won the lottery and took a paid vacation to the Bahamas or went to Las Vegas.
And so LeeAnn decides that being alone is the worst thing you can be. There is something worse than being shrivelled on a shelf and she knows this when Cheryl does not come in the store again, and she does not see Cal again, and the 14-year-old boy did die, and she is slowly curling in on herself, and she did drink the drain-o and nothing even happened.
LILLIAN BARFIELD is a graduate student and writer from Honea Path, South Carolina. She often writes about the people she feels are most forgotten in an effort to never forget them. Her work is published or forthcoming in Sink Hollow, Firewords, and Holyflea.